CANNES, France — Not much star-schmoozing to report, I’m afraid. Even in utero, Angelina Jolie’s twins managed to kick this lowly Cannes reporter from his coveted “seat” on the floor of the teeming Wi-Fi Café. The photo corps needed its shots of the celeb as she strode past Cannes Press Central!
I made do with a pathetic snapshot of the back of George Lucas’ crystal skull, taken from a football field away, as I had been unceremoniously shut out of the jampacked “Indy 4” press conference. (Just as well, perhaps.) Later I squeezed off slightly better photos of Spike Lee and Mike Tyson, and interviewed Minnesota filmmaker Aleshia Mueller (see accompanying story) — who is not now famous, but no doubt will be.
At this, my 11th Cannes fest, I had far better views of the stars — Julianne Moore (“Blindness”), Robert De Niro (“What Just Happened?”), Gwyneth Paltrow (“Two Lovers”), Ethan Hawke (“Chelsea on the Rocks”) — from my seat at screenings. In all, I caught nearly 30 features in 10 days, and I think I can remember at least something about every film I saw (!).
I can earnestly recommend the half-dozen below — all of which, with the exception of the potentially unmarketable “Ché,” seem likely to make it to our local artsyplex within the year.
“Waltz with Bashir”
The Cannes festival’s very first evening sent the international press corps to war. An animated documentary made aptly intense by lacerating reenactments of the early ’80s battle between Israel and Lebanon, this film from director Ari Folman has both the visual style and philosophical bent of Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life,” but the combat scenes give it more in common with “Platoon.”
Would the movie be nearly as powerful in live action rather than this computer-drawn psychedelia? Without giving anything away, I’ll say that the final scene — more devastatingly real than anything that has preceded it — complicates the question even further.
Already legendary in the annals of hot-ticket festival screenings, Steven Soderbergh’s four-and-a-half-hour biopic of Ché Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) came to Cannes at least somewhat unfinished. Indeed, only one credit ever appeared onscreen — though, in relation to the film’s tumultuous production history as well as the oppositional philosophy of its subject, that one credit said it all: “Warner Bros. France presents.” At press time, there’s still no American money in the $60 million epic, Minnesota film financier Bill Pohlad having left the project along with chosen director Terrence Malick (“The New World”) before Soderbergh signed on as a gun for hire.
In multiple ways, and much to its credit, the movie — which primarily tells of Ché’s battles in Cuba and Bolivia — appears perhaps too radical for the United States. Unconventionally told, oddly shaped, extremely long, and thoroughly devoted to showing the heroism of an anti-capitalist revolutionary, “Ché” is a war movie that’s equal parts Kurosawa and Peckinpah, but arguably more experimental than either. We must hope — or fight, as the case may be — for Soderbergh to smuggle his guerrilla operation into the land of plenty.
“Wendy and Lucy”
Pacific Northwest filmmaker Kelly Reichardt matches the melancholy of her previous “Old Joy” with this deceptively simple study of a girl and her dog in the dangerous wilds of small-town Oregon. Hauntingly played by lanky Michelle Williams, whose recent loss of beau Heath Ledger adds unavoidable layers of bereavement to the character, Alaska-bound Wendy is suddenly stripped of both her once-trusty old Honda and loyal mutt Lucy.
Our heroine’s emotional reserves — more plentiful than her financial ones, fortunately — are tested at every turn; dog-lover or not, you’ll be tested, too, not least in an unforgettably excruciating shot that inches its way one cage at a time down the long corridor of the local pound. Lucy, are you there, girl?
As powerfully as in “Old Joy,” Reichardt uses an endangered relationship to meditate on key elements of the human condition. And I’ll be doggone if the director doesn’t capture something of the canine condition here as well.
“Entre les Murs (The Class)”
Well-deserving winner of the grand-prize Palme d’Or from the Sean Penn-led Cannes jury, this intelligent drama from French director Laurent Cantet (“Time Out”) — a kind of Gallic “Half Nelson” — sees the blackboard jungle as a sign of the times.
Beleaguered high-school teacher François (François Begaudeau) is charged with keeping his patience-testing teenage students in line and maybe helping them learn a thing or two in the process. But issues of race, class and gender inevitably swirl around each of the teacher’s rapid-fire interactions with his diverse group of students, and Cantet, through equally quick editing, catches them all in ways that gradually find François at an unflattering disadvantage in the viewer’s estimation.
Piercingly believable and honest, a must-see for anyone who’s interested in education (i.e., anyone?), “The Class” steers admirably clear of uplift-the-kids clichés. It succeeds by showing high-school instruction to be tough, nearly impossible work — and vitally important.
“Synecdoche, New York”
Hollywood’s foremost authority on black-comic existentialism, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) doubles as director for this, his typically bizarre tale of a theater man’s downward slide.
Sad sack Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, an undistinguished theater director whose family falls apart in the most disturbingly ordinary way — a prelude to trippier humiliations that the filmmaker has in store for his hypochondriac protagonist, diagnosed with something real and really awful.
A bona fide genius on the page, Kaufman hasn’t half the visual flair of Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, the music-video vets who made his previous scripts come fully to life. But as Cotard’s darkly funny hallucinations accumulate force, either as a function of his clinical depression or some other potentially fatal disease, “Synecdoche” proves plenty surreal — at times suggesting a film written and directed by (ha-ha!) a brain tumor.
One could get into a grudge match trying to defend this decidedly non-hard-hitting documentary profile — some would say whitewash — of former heavyweight champ and recovering abuser Mike Tyson by his friend, director James Toback (“When Will I Be Loved”). So, still weary from having gone the distance in Cannes, I’ll just say diplomatically for now that the film takes the careers of both Toback and Tyson — neither one to throw in the towel — all the way to the hard-luck round.
Toback’s use of split-screen effects, with the champ seeming to answer multiple interview questions at once, represents what the conflicted Tyson himself calls the “chaos of the brain”; eventually, as the subject delves into his combative relationships with Robin Givens and Desiree Washington, no such digital trickery is required to bring a sense of turmoil to the screen, even to your own seat.
Not that the rowdy, prevailingly macho late-night crowd at the first Cannes screening hesitated to give the 40-year-old fighter — sporting a tattoo of none other than Ché under his spiffy threads — two standing ovations. More cheers — and calls for a rematch — are sure to follow when the film is released later this year.
Rob Nelson is a member of the National Society of Film Critics, an adjunct instructor at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and the former film editor at City Pages. His writing also appears in Film Comment, Cinema Scope and the Boston Phoenix. He covers movies and related topics.